Norfolk area ports to receive container X-ray systems

NORFOLK, Va.-Customs and Border Protection (CBP), as part of a larger purchase of new high-energy container inspection X-Ray systems, is expected to supply two of the systems for use at the Port of Virginia for improved container security.

CBP currently operates two mobile VACIS systems supplied by Science Applications International Corp. [SAI] at the various port facilities in the Hampton Roads area, but that equipment is aging, Mark Laria, the agency's port director in the area, tells TR2. The new high energy systems that the port will be getting will provide a better picture of a container's contents, which means fewer times that inspectors will have to open a container and physically search it, he says.

"The better the picture, the more we can base our risk decisions," Laria says.

The new systems, which will also be mobile, are being supplied by Smiths Detection as part of a new contract with CBP (See following story).

The port currently has two VACIS systems. Laria isn't sure whether he'll be able to keep those once he gets the new high energy systems but he says typically CBP doesn't take them away. If he does keep the VACIS systems, Laria says they will likely be assigned to a specific terminal in the area.

The high energy HCV Mobile systems, because of the amount of radiation they give off during a scan, do require a sizeable restricted area to conduct operations. Laria says real estate isn't an issue where he plans to operate them in the Virginia ports.

For its current operations, CBP typically has containers that have been flagged to be scanned lined up in an established staging area where the VACIS systems drive by to do the imaging. A CBP officer drives the mobile system while another officer sits in the rear of the vehicle and analyzes the images on a computer screen. Each container only requires seconds to be scanned but the analysis of the imagery can take upwards of 30 to 40 minutes per container depending on the image clarity, whether a container may need to be opened, or if additional research needs to be done on the importer.

Some times CBP officers will operate the VACIS system closer to where containers are being offloaded based on risk assessments done by CBP through its Automatic Targeting System (ATS) or because a large number of containers coming off a ship were flagged to be scanned, Laria says.

Based on the ATS risk assessments, or even a VACIS scan, some containers are transported several miles away from any of the shipping terminals to a Container Examination Station (CES) where the individual boxes or pallets are unloaded to be scanned by smaller X-Ray machines. Any container that is destined for the CES is required to have a VACIS scan before leaving the terminal.

At the CES, CBP operates a Z Backscatter Van supplied by American Science and Engineering [ASEI] and a pallet X-Ray machine that is also supplied by AS&E to scan the unloaded cargo. Laria is hoping for a new pallet X-Ray system to replace the current aging one to speed up the warehouse operations.

It takes about a day for the CES to unload, scan and reload upwards of a dozen containers. There are usually about 30 containers at the CES, either in the docking bays or in the yard. Any shipper who is certified under the Customs- Trade Partnership Against Terrorism Program is automatically next in line at the CES if their container is flagged for closer inspection, Laria says.

At the Norfolk International Terminal, which is one of three cargo terminals managed by the state-owned Virginia Port Authority, any container exiting the terminal on a truck goes through a fixed radiation portal monitor.

The Norfolk terminal also has a rail yard with two chokepoints, one on the south side and the other on the northern end. Last month CBP set up a mobile radiation portal monitor supplied by SAIC at the southern end of the rail yard to screen containers that had been offloaded from ships for delivery by trucks to a rail car. Soon a similar set up will be deployed at the north side of the rail yard.

If the next-generation of radiation portal monitors are certified and deployed, the rail yard would probably be equipped with an Advanced Spectroscopic Portal for secondary inspection, Laria says. All this has yet to be decided, he adds.

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